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Some thoughts on China, and they should wake you up

I just had the best Chinese food experience of my life.  The food was definitely good, but the truly amazing part was the setting.  You see, I was actually in Shanghai, China this past week and was able to experience far more than just the food – I got to meet the people and to see how they live.  I got to hear their stories and their vision for the future as well.

What I found was very different from what I experienced on my previous trip to China in the late 90s.  Granted, some of the differences are a result of the diversity between Shanghai and Beijing, but to see the growth in infrastructure and the business climate was almost staggering.

Inside the terminal at Pudong Airport

On my previous trip, we got to see a lot of historical sites, and talked a lot about the past.  This time, the entire discussion was about the future.  And the future looks bright for the Chinese, or at least the 19.2 million that live in Shanghai.

My first impression was of the airport.  When I was in the Hongqiao International Airport in the 90s, it was not much different from what we had at home (and that is not necessarily a compliment).  Now, the newer Shanghai Pudong International Airport is one of the busiest in the world, and is a testament to the way airports should be built.  It was easy to navigate, looks good, and can serve more than 60 million passengers per year.  The interesting thing is, it took slightly more than two years to build the first phase. In San Diego, we have been talking about building a new airport for the past 50 years.  In China, they didn’t talk about it, they built it.

The other infrastructure in the city was equally as amazing.  There are thousands of high rise buildings in Shanghai, and on first glance, I assumed that it would take hours to get across town.  When we went to visit the Shanghai World Financial Center for high tea (I have to admit I ordered a beer), it took just a few minutes and less than $5 U.S. dollars to get there from across the river where we were staying. Although the taxi rides are enough to make even the most avid roller coaster fans queasy, the roads are amazingly efficient and the cab fares are very reasonable, courtesy of strict government controls.

The public transportation system is even more amazing. Shanghai boasts the world’s most extensive bus system, with more than 1,000 bus lines.  They also have a rapid-transit system and elevated light rail that will get you wherever you need to go. The best of the options has to be the Shanghai Maglev Train, which will get you from the Pudong financial district to the airport in less than eight minutes.  Did I mention that it travels more than 400 km per hour?  We rode it to the airport and back one afternoon just to experience it.  Didn’t even get off at the other end.  Shanghai is also the world’s largest cargo port, but I did not get to see that part of the city.

However, as impressive as the infrastructure was (and how fast they could build it) the business climate is what caught my eye the most.  The Chinese were not interested in talking about companies coming in to their country to find low cost manufacturing options.  They were not all excited about the establishment of international brands in their marketplace.  What they were excited about was the growth of Chinese companies and the Chinese business model.  The conversations were not about items made in China, but about ideas and products created in China that can be shared with the world.  This is a major mind shift.

China remains a huge consumer market, and many companies want to tap into that market to sell their goods.  However, Chinese businesses are looking at creating their own brands not only to sell domestically, but also to sell to the world.  There is also tremendous growth happening in the service sector, and the prospects for future growth are even greater.  Equally as important is the number of Chinese companies looking to acquire other companies.  With substantial available cash, we are seeing that happen as we speak.

I was in China to meet with our partners in The Worldcom Public Relations Group annual general meeting.  We were fortunate to be in town during Shanghai World Expo 2010 and got to visit for the day.  It was also great to be hosted by out Italian partner at their beautiful pavilion.

Shanghai should be proud of what they did to secure, prepare for and host World Expo 2010.  The day we visited there were 400,000 people in attendance.  It is probably the most important event the Chinese have ever held (since it lasts a lot longer than the Olympics and showcases more that just sports) and is drawing the world’s attention.

The entire event was set up to showcase one thing:  the Chinese have a clear focus on the future and a plan for how they are going to get there.  You may or may not agree with how they do it, but I have no doubt that they will get it done, while we in the U.S. will continue to struggle to see if we can even agree on what we want our future to be.

This should be a wake up call to us all.

A few additional observations:

  • I did not see one fortune cookie, furthering my belief that they were invented by Chinese restaurants in the West.
    A little pepper with that chicken dish?
  • I could not find kung pao chicken anywhere.  The closest dish we found was a chicken dish with spicy red peppers, but the ratio of chicken to peppers was the opposite of what we find here.  Yes, it was 90% peppers, and I could only handle about five of them before I decided it was in my own personal best interest to stop.
  • Everyone I met understands commerce.  The retail establishments I encountered still have a ways to go to meet the standard of customer service we are used to, but they sure do know how to sell, bargain and negotiate.  Even the smallest of street vendors understands the power of a selling message, and even though I do not speak Chinese, the message was clear.
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